Special Olympics athletes, Smartsheet, and the Seattle Kraken team up to demonstrate inclusion in sports

by The Smartsheet Team

By Amelia Ransom, VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Smartsheet 

As a presenting partner with the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Seattle Kraken, and now an official partner with Special Olympics International, Smartsheet isn’t just helping power these two organizations’ strategic initiatives with our technology. We are joining in their efforts to create a more inclusive world through sports.  

This week, we welcomed more than 70 Special Olympics athletes from across Washington State to  Kraken Community Iceplex for a day to introduce them to hockey in the home of the NHL’s newest team. Special Olympics athlete Garrett Utz, who already owns a #31 Philipp Grubauer sweater, couldn’t wait to get on the ice. “The best thing about learning a new sport is that once you get the hang of it, you realize how much fun it is. I don’t play hockey yet, but I do ice skate. When I skate, I imagine what it feels like for a hockey player—it feels like I’m flying on ice and there’s something about the cold air and the smell of the ice,” he said. 

Practicing skating, learning about hockey, and shooting a puck may have been the most memorable parts of the day for many of the athletes with intellectual disabilities who participated. 

But this event was about something bigger. So many of these athletes have been disregarded, counted out, told too many times what they can’t do. Smartsheet is ALL IN on creating opportunities so they can show the world all they CAN do. 

Making “the only” feel at home

I know what it’s like to be the first, the only, to be underrepresented. I know what it's like to show up and not feel comfortable. To stick out and feel like you don’t want to stay.

Special Olympics Washington works hard to change this by making sports more accessible to more people. The organization offers roughly two dozen activities—from artistic gymnastics to robotics to bocce to power lifting—to more than 19,500 intellectually disabled children and adult participants in the Evergreen State. They’d love to add hockey, but it will depend on community involvement. “Our athletes are constantly asking to try new sports—like hockey!” notes David Wu, president and CEO, Special Olympics Washington. “The only way we can offer more sports and expand our reach to all individuals with intellectual disabilities is to find more coaches. That’s one of our key challenges.” 

Beyond this community support, another challenge is making inclusion part of their culture. The Kraken are facing this head on. They aim to make the Iceplex a place everyone can feel they really belong, while also striving for greater diversity in the game of hockey:

  • The Smartsheet rink has accessibility features like clear panels in player benches so sled hockey players who are lower to the ground can see the ice from the bench. 
  • The Kraken’s ONEROOF Foundation aims to lower the barriers to participation by providing financial assistance because they know that is a huge cause of underrepresentation in sport for people of color and those living with disabilities. 
  • The Kraken support Black Girl Hockey Club scholarships with proceeds from special-edition merchandise, to subsidize the costs of playing hockey for Black girls and young women. 
  • The organization is also reaching out to local nonprofits, so children who have never considered the sport know they can learn to skate and play hockey. 
  • The Kraken’s team broadcaster Everett Fitzhugh is the first Black play-by-play announcer in the NHL.

This is what showing up for inclusion and diversity looks like. “Before I joined Special Olympics, I didn’t feel respected,” notes Utz, who plays soccer for the Special Olympics Issaquah Spirits and was one of three athlete-officials to officiate the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. “Now, I feel like people accept me for who I am. I like that hockey is a community-based sport that embraces inclusion. I really like the NHL motto, ‘hockey is for everyone.’ The Seattle Kraken have the support of the entire Pacific Northwest and beyond.”

Inclusion and innovation go together

When we can support those in the margins and focus our energy on creating equitable opportunities, we can support everyone. And we end up solving broader problems.

This isn’t just a theory. Disability challenges continually spark technology innovations that make life better for everyone. The first computer chips were used in hearing aids. Audiobooks and the forerunners for text-to-speech software got their start as accessibility tools.

Organizations serving those with disabilities are in a position to lead on innovation. That’s one reason we couldn’t be prouder of our just-announced partnership with Special Olympics to empower its teams and athletes to manage projects, automate workflows and collaborate more easily. 

Keeping things running smoothly for more than 5.7 million Special Olympics athletes competing in 200 countries year-round is a very big job. This expansion of our relationship will let Special Olympics International leverage additional Smartsheet capabilities and support so their teams can use Smartsheet to manage projects and plan events. Special Olympics athletes will also benefit, using our platform to communicate with other members, plan events, and manage their own projects. 

We must chase impact to achieve it

In life, nobody does it alone; we all need support. Creating a more inclusive society that gives each person a chance to write their own narrative takes constant, daily effort from leaders, businesses, and ordinary people. We must create the conditions and opportunities for it and actively chase after it.

So for us at Smartsheet, this event with our partners at the Kraken and Special Olympics Washington was about more than just one day on the ice for people who may have felt excluded from hockey before. It was about allowing these athletes to open our hearts and eyes to a wider world of human talents and potential. It was about living by our active commitment to inclusion. It was about seeing how powerful sport can be in dismantling discrimination. And it demonstrated a model for how organizations can work together to spur more inclusive communities—whether in sports, within a company, or in daily life. 

Our company runs on the belief we can empower anyone to drive meaningful change—for themselves, their businesses and even the world. I want to say a huge THANK YOU to the more than 50 Smartsheet employees who raised their hands and helped make our day with Special Olympics athletes at KCI such a success. Our business provides the tools for people to do what they want to do, and do more of it, in their own way, on their terms. 

And you are the engine helping everyone be their best, according to their own abilities and in pursuit of their own goals. Let’s keep this going. Consider joining Special Olympics Washington’s team of Tech Coaches to teach a Special Olympics athlete practical lessons on the basics of using technology, like online safety, how to use online communication tools, and email.

Or volunteer as a sports coach, a fan cheering in the stands, a fundraiser, a Unified partner playing alongside the athletes or more. Just find a chapter near you.